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Armed Forces Memorial: Lest we forget

30 October 2007
Armed Forces Memorial

A monument befitting those serving in the Armed Forces who have laid down their lives for their country.

As the two minutes of silence begins at 11am on Armistice Day next month (11 November) the sun should shine through the opening of a Portland limestone carving of an ajar door in the new Armed Forces Memorial at the Royal British Legion’s National Memorial Arboretum on to the stone at the centre of the memorial. The new memorial commemorates those who have died in the service of their country since the end of World War II – more than 15,500 of them. Their names were inscribed on to the Portland stone walls of the memorial in the workshops of S McConnell & Sons in Northern Ireland. McConnells made and erected the monument in less than a year (in spite of the loss of 23 days due to flooding) ready for its dedication in the presence of the Queen on 12 October.

More than 15,500 people in the armed forces have died in the service of the country since the end of World War II. Now their names are recorded in Portland limestone on the new Armed Forces Memorial dedicated in the presence of the Queen this month (on 12 October).

The memorial stands on a man-made mound in the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, Staffordshire, its 360 tonnes of finished stone worked and laid in exemplary fashion by Northern Irish masonry company S McConnell & Sons, working with main contractors Osborne. 

Portland stone steps lead up the mound to a 6m high wall of Portland forming an incomplete circle of 43m diameter.

Inside are two parallel walls of Portland with Ian Rank-Broadley bronze sculptures against each, leading to a 12m high obelisk. On top of the obelisk sits the largest single stone in the project at four tonnes. It has been gilded.

Neil Fuller, the Director of Stone Firms, the Portland quarry company who supplied the Coombefield Whitbed for the obelisk, told NSS: “The top stone for the obelisk was the only stone to prove difficult in obtaining as the finished size was 1.2m square by nearly 2m high. We had to cut several blocks before we found the right one.”

The walls comprise 1,374 Bowers Basebed panels supplied by the other Portland stone quarry company, Albion Stone. The panels are 1350mm high x 740mm wide on the curved walls and 1125mm high and 732mm wide on the flat walls. The 15,530 names of the servicemen and women who have died in the course of their duty since 1945 are inscribed on 700 of the panels.

Providing such large pieces of stone tested the quarry companies because it is at the limit of the bed heights available in Portland, as the architect, Liam O’Connor, was well aware it would be when he specified it. “This was probably the most troublesome and challenging order ever undertaken on Portland,” he says.

Michael Poultney, the Managing Director of Albion wouldn’t disagree. “It was bloody difficult,” he told NSS. “We had about three years discussing the project before we started and we recommended a six month lead in period for the selection of blocks to give us a buffer stop because of the high bed heights required. But the lead-in was dramatically less than we had ideally hoped for. We were supplying on a just-in-time basis, which put a lot of pressure on us and McConnells.”

And Neil Fuller said: “For us this project came out of the blue. We were asked about supplying the Portland stone one week and the next week we were in production. It eventually became a major project lasting nine months.”

It was not always absolutely certain that the memorial would be Portland limestone and there was even, briefly, a suggestion that it could be concrete, says Lt Colonel Richard Callander of the Armed Forces Memorial Appeal that is still about £450,000 short of the £6million needed to pay for the construction costs (any contributions to the fund would be gratefully received – visit the website address at the top of page 19). In the end, traditional brick-core and Portland solid wall construction has been used.

The architect says: “There was no predetermined idea that it would be Portland, but Portland is obviously the stone of choice for prestigious buildings. It’s important, though, to look at other stones and eliminate them. There are other beautiful British stones which simply weren’t available in the sizes we wanted. We didn’t want to build the memorial in little pieces so it ended up looking like bathroom tiling.”

But Liam had always wanted the memorial to use stone. “We have a passion in the office for stone. We try to build in solid, load-bearing material showing the skill of the craftsmen and the quality the material has as one of the most enduring, sustainable materials there is on earth.

“Using it wisely it can last for thousands of years and can say so much about our culture and history. It’s just such a wonderful material.”

The quarry companies supplied the block sawn-six-sides to S McConnell & Sons in Kilkeel – 600tonnes from Albion and 500tonnes from Stone Firms.

One of the reasons it went out to McConnells is that they have one of the best equipped workshops in the UK and the programming skills to put the machines to best use. And with the timescale for the project, it was always going to need the input of machines.

That is particularly true of all those inscriptions. Letterer and sculptor Richard Kindersley, who designed a font especially for the memorial (see page 28), has calculated it would have taken five craftspeople 10 years to cut the letters by hand.

The letters are based on a Roman letterform but with slightly overstressed thick and thin strokes and emphasised serifs. Richard told NSS: “This font is designed specifically for Portland stone. It’s unique.”

Liam O’Connor says: “Lettering is sculpture. The intention was always to work to a very high level of lettering.”

The font was specially designed so that the letters could be cut by McConnell’s big Omag CNC workcentre as well as it being possible to add future inscriptions by hand.

The font was handed over to Glyn Lucas, McConnell’s Technology Manager, to put on to the Omag that McConnells put into their workshop last year, the second such machine they have bought.

There is a maximum of 25 names on each panel and it took an average of three hours for the Omag to complete each of the 700 panels that were inscribed.

But not everything could be produced by machine. Liam says: “Lots of individual components were carved by hand because machining would have offered too crude an option. A lot of the moulding profiles that we’ve used have deep undercuts of the sort abandoned by the Romans because they couldn’t compete with the Greeks.

“So we’ve gone back to a certain approach to that which only those who know their Greek mouldings would be able to identity. As such, there’s a lot of layers in this project – a lot of food for historians to uncover.”

Liam says he had high expectations of himself, as well as the others working on the memorial. “I was trying to achieve the most memorable memorial ever built,” he says.

To do that he referenced a wide range of great edifices in the world. And what he discovered was that in structures from the neolithic through the classical to the renaissance, including the domes of such great works as the Pantheon in Rome, Borobudar in Java and St Paul’s in London, the diameter of 43m kept reappearing.

“For the past 6,000 years they all seem to be 43m. I don’t know why. There’s a sort of natural scale for a public enclosure. There’s almost no point in doing anything larger than that.”

Taking his lead from neolithic barrows, Liam has also put his 43m diameter stone circle on a man-made hill, which was useful in June and July when much of arboretum was flooded by water up to 1.25m deep in places, killing about 5,000 of the 65,000 trees that have been planted on the 150-acres (60.7hectares) of old gravel workings since the National Memorial Arboretum was established there in 1997.

In spite of the memorial’s elevated position, the floods did cause work to stop for 23 days, which on a one year project of this intricacy was a lot to lose. It has also left some marking on the stone, although that will weather out in a few months.

Liam decided to construct the Armed Forces Memorial on the 6m high man-made hill because, he says: “If you go to Silvery Hill in Wiltshire and see these stone structures around you there’s something quite extraordinary about it. There’s a sense that something important just happened. We want people to feel that at the Armed Forces Memorial.”

Silvery Hill is a mound at the centre of Sanctuary, Long Barrel, and Avebury, giving views of the three sites. It has been speculated that a signal from Silvery Hill would have started ceremonies at the other sites simultaneously.

Every aspect of the Armed Forces Memorial is about creating a sense of place and significance. Indeed, Lt Col Callander says that before they had judged the architectural competition to choose the design, he had been asked what he was looking for. “I said: I have no idea what it’s going to look like, but I know how I want to feel when I’m inside it.”

The choice of McConnells to carry out the work was related to their work shaping the DeLank granite for the Diana Memorial in Hyde Park (see NSS July 2004). Liam O’Connor says: “I heard what McConnells were doing there and I visited the site several times. I met Norman [Norman McKibbin, the Managing Director of McConnells] and I realised this was an outfit that could achieve significant things.”

And he has not been disappointed. “We’ve had our trials and tribulations on a range of issues on this project because when you want to build something with tiny joints, of the type you expect to see in old cathedrals, you get told you can’t achieve that precision anymore. Everyone runs for cover because no one believes they can do it. But they’ve certainly proved they can on this project.

“McConnells have been absolutely unbelievable. Not just on day one but on every day right through to day 365. They worked tirelessly through a year of development to get the software right to be able to do what we’ve done.

“I think it’s been a great challenge for them. But to see the three older brothers on site, working 12 hour shifts for a year to single handedly pull things together with the immense precision that that requires has been utterly spectacular and very moving… their skill, willpower, honesty, integrity and commitment was superbly moving to observe.

“The stone or building industry doesn’t have a lot of that anymore. They are amazing. I just long to come up with another idea to give them some more challenges.

"The memorial proves to the building industry that great, skillful things can be done within relatively modest budgets.

"We did a little historical analysis that the memorial, at 43m diameter, is  the same size as the Pantheon in Rome and the domes of St Pauls (diameter) and Brunelleschi’s cathedral in Florence (spelling checked), bigger than Stonehenge, and the same as the inside of St Peter’s in Rome. Also same diameter as Jefferson Memorial. This means that 43m is the size of some of the great stone structures of the world."

The Arboretum is owned by the Royal British Legion and was created as a result of the efforts of Commander David Childs, CBE, Royal Navy (retired), following a visit to Arlington Cemetery and the National Arboretum in America in 1988.

Lettering for the Armed Forces Memorial created by Richard Kindersley

Richard Kindersley studied lettering and sculpture at Cambridge School of Art and in the workshop of his father, David Kindersley, who had a direct line to the Arts & Crafts Movement. In 1966 Richard set up his own studio in London, accepting commissions for lettering and sculpture. He has designed title lettering schemes for London Bridge, Tower Bridge and the M25 Queen Elizabeth Bridge over the Thames at Dartford; the New Crown Court Buildings in Liverpool, Leeds, Swindon, Newcastle and Luton; University buildings in Cambridge, Oxford, Exeter and Kent. He has produced designs for theatres and major shopping centres for both the main building titles and the signing systems and has provided inscriptions for many of the great churches and cathedrals including St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey.

The 15,530 names inscribed on the Armed Forces Memorial use a font specifically designed by artist-craftsman Richard Kindersley at his studio in Cardigan Street, London. The letters could not possibly have been cut into the Portland limestone of the memorial by hand in the time available, so the letters had to be capable of being inscribed by machine as well as it being possible for more to be added by hand as necessary in the coming years. Here, Richard Kindersley talks about the inscriptions produced by his studio.

Whatever effort or artifice is called into their design, mechanically routed letters never come close to the quality and lyricism of fine hand cutting. During the process of the development of the Armed Forces Memorial font, this conundrum both bothered and interested me.

Surely logic argues that if mechanical perfection is achieved by the router reproducing a perfectly drawn letter, the finished result before us is perfection!

The conventional wisdom is that an object that is handcrafted derives its qualities from all the small imperfections that accompany something made by hand. I take a different view.

I believe that the beauty and attractiveness of something made by a fine craftsperson is derived not from any arbitrary shortcoming of the process but more the celebration of the effort, attention and magical quality of the act of creating.

This quality or energy is imparted by human intervention to each letter. With a mechanically produced letter it is no more than a photograph, a machined replica of a drawn letter that is endlessly repeated.

The act of human intervention imparts energy into the letters that resonates with anybody looking at or reading the words. We all know how we are drawn toward a handmade object, wanting to touch it as if the act of touching connects us back to the craftsperson.

We were fortunate to be able to celebrate the making of hand cut letters on the larger, more formal inscriptions of the Armed Forces Memorial. But for the list of names of the deceased, there was no alternative to machining the letters.

It began two years ago when I was approached by Liam O’Connor, the architect of the memorial, to consider a method of cutting the 15,530 names into the Portland stone walls that make up the Armed Forces Memorial.

The memorial consists of two outer circular walls, 6m high, encompassing two inner 4m high walls. Each line of inscription contains only the surname, initials and any decorations of the deceased. It is a modern convention not to record rank in the belief that all are equal in death.

I calculated that five skilled craftspeople would take 10 years to set out and carve the list of names. This would not have been feasible, taking into account the demands of the timescale for completion. Alternative ways of recording the names in the stone were therefore sought.

The options were either machine cutting or sand blasting. Some particularly unfortunate inscriptions using sandblasting have appeared in London recently, producing letters that lack both definition and the variable depth that machine routing can achieve. The machining option quickly emerged as the preferred solution.

The five axis, digitally driven stone routing machine from Italian manufacturers Omag at the workshops of masonry company S McConnell & Sons in Northern Ireland was to carry out the work. Whatever the software instructed the machine to rout, it obeyed with alacrity and disturbing accuracy!

For my studio the intriguing and challenging task was to design a suitable letter form that harnessed the refined technology of the Omag to address the design parameters successfully.

These limitations were indeed formidable.

The first and most difficult problem was accommodating the sheer number of names. To fit on the 15,530 names, as well as allowing for future names to be added, it was calculated that the maximum capital letter height could be no more than 25mm. By any standard this is small to carve satisfactorily into Portland stone.

Portland is a fine carving material. However, like any material, it will eventually suffer from the effects of weathering, a problem that could be exacerbated by pollution and cause the legibility of the lettering to deteriorate.

The font design for the memorial addresses the two problems of small letter height and weathering by making the serifs and thin strokes proportionately more robust than the classical antecedents.

This was essential in order to produce a machined letter form of acceptable performance together with the visual sophistication I was determined to achieve.

In short the letters were required to be:

  • deeply cut in general
  • have deep and clearly articulated serifs
  • have strong thin strokes
  • with a letter form to be of a contemporary look
  • with an interesting design appearance.

To address this last point, small additional embellishments were added to give sparkle and individuality to the mass of lettering.

Once the font was completed and tested my studio began the long process of setting up and letter spacing the names on to the individual panels ready for routing by the Omag. Depending on whether the lettering was going on to a straight or curved wall, the stone panels were approximately 1.3m by 750mm and 1m by 800mm.

The names were first set out and the letters spaced as individual Quark files (Quark being a graphic design computer program) – one file for each of the 700 stone panels to be inscribed.

It was a tortuous route to enable the Quark files and associated font to be read by the Omag machine. The Quark files had to be individually saved in EPS format then converted to Illustrator files to preserve the font data (Illustrator is another computer program used for graphic design).

The completed files were sent on CDs or at times e-mailed to McConnells in Northern Ireland. The Omag router worked 24 hours a day to enable the stones to be delivered on programme to the site in Staffordshire. My studio had to keep pace, supplying digital files to meet the insatiable work capacity of the routing machine.

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